On Brown's 50th: Why Charlottesville schools were closed


The yellowed newspaper clippings at the Albemarle County Historical Society show two African-American brothers arriving for the first day of school on September 8, 1959.

Missing in the photos is the bustle of other students heading to class. The two boys are followed by photographers.

The Daily Progress reported "no disturbances" on this momentous day, as three African-American youths became the first to integrate Charlottesville's Lane High School. As the boys arrived, one white student reportedly leaned out a window and yelled, "Here they come." The paper noted, "No cat calls were heard."

That's not how John Martin remembers it.

He was one of the boys. Fourteen years old and in the 10th grade, he arrived with his brother, Donald, 13, to join French Jackson, 12.

"They told us to go to the rear door," he recalls. "It was locked. Then we went up to the front like we were supposed to.

"People were lined up there screaming names, calling all kinds of names: 'Nigger, go home.' 'Go back to your kind.' 'Stay away from my daughter.'"

If so, it was not Charlottesville's finest hour.

Making it happen

Charlottesville in the 1950s was a place where African Americans sat in the balcony at movie theaters such as the Jefferson and the Paramount, the latter of which had its own "colored" entrance on Third Street NE. They attended segregated black schools: Jefferson Elementary and Jackson Burley High School.

Job opportunities included positions as domestics, porters, and waiters. According to then-NAACP president Eugene Williams, black doctors didn't have privileges at UVA, and black teachers weren't paid the same as their white counterparts.

And if an African American wanted to sit down for a burger and shake at the counter at Woolworth's, well, he or she would be in for a very long wait.

In 1954, Williams was a 26-year-old district manager for Richmond Beneficial Insurance Company. That year, his first as president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, membership soared from 65 to 900, and to 1,500 the second year.

In the segregated Charlottesville of the 1930s, Williams had to walk by Midway High School on Ridge Street (now the site of Midway Manor retirement home) to attend Jefferson for grades 1-11 (12th grade wasn't added to Virginia schools until the late 1940s).

Later, he sat in court when whites tried to persuade the judge that black schools were good. "Why weren't any white children going to these schools if they were so good?" he asks.

With NAACP lawyers Oliver Hill, Samuel Tucker, and Spotswood Robinson– who later became a judge– Williams fought to end segregation.

The NAACP began seeking families to join a lawsuit against the Charlottesville School Board to integrate the city's schools. When only 11 families could be found, Williams' wife, Lorraine, a teacher– in a move he calls "courageous"– agreed to join.

"He took a courageous role as leader," says former mayor Francis Fife. "Eugene knew somebody had to do it."

But some whites considered Williams a rabble-rouser.

"I'd heard of him as 'that Eugene Williams,' as if he was causing trouble," says activist Jane Foster. "He wanted integration. He put his daughters on the line."

"My father was able to be as forceful as he was because he had a black business with one of the largest black insurance companies," explains one of those daughters, Scheryl Williams Glanton. "Others were not able to do that because of who signed their paychecks."

"Eugene was one of the men in town who made integration successful," says George Tramontin, who became Charlottesville school superintendent in 1963. "He is not as recognized as so many others because the work he was doing was behind the scenes. Eugene's the man."

Massive resistance

If the atmosphere was tense when John Martin integrated Lane, things had been considerably quieter a year earlier, thanks to Governor Lindsay Almond's order to shut down Lane and Venable Elementary in the fall of 1958. The schools stayed closed for five months rather than comply with a federal court order to admit 12 African-American children. That was how the Supreme Court's 1954 landmark Brown case played out in Charlottesville– at least initially.

"When Brown v. Board of Education came out," says Eugene Williams, "it didn't mean school boards across the country said, 'How do we comply?'"

Many refused to comply, especially in Virginia. Abetted by U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, Virginia's General Assembly decided to fight the Supreme Court's rejection of the separate-but-equal doctrine that had kept the South segregated since 1896.

The laws the Assembly passed, known as "massive resistance," allowed the governor to close any school where black and white pupils were enrolled together.

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled massive resistance unconstitutional in 1959, but during the intervening three years, thousands of African-American students suffered.

They closed their schools

Lane and Venable were closed until February 4, 1959. The rest of the city's schools remained open– and segregated– that year.

Those two schools began heading toward closure after black parents petitioned for transfers to white schools in October 1955. When the School Board denied their petitions, they sued.

Julia Martin was one of those parents. "If it had been left to the locality," says Martin, "I don't believe we'd have had to close the schools."

On August 6, 1956, U.S. District Court Judge John Paul in Harrisonburg ruled in Allen v. School Board of the City of Charlottesville that Charlottesville had to integrate Lane and Venable.

The city appealed, the Supreme Court refused to hear its appeal, and by September 10, 1958, Judge Paul again ordered Venable to enroll 10 black children and Lane to enroll two.

Governor Almond didn't like that. He also ordered the closure of schools in Norfolk, Warren County, and Prince Edward County–and in the latter, public schools remained shut for five years. [See sidebar– editor.]

It wasn't until John Martin and the other two boys walked into Lane on September 8, 1959– five years after Brown– that Charlottesville schools were finally integrated.

Litigant Martin

Julia Martin is 80 and elegant in the Lankford Avenue home where she's lived since 1947. She signed on to the Allen lawsuit when her oldest son was attending all-black Burley on Rose Hill Drive. She, too, objected to the idea of her children walking by one high school– Lane– to get to another.

Another thing that rankled Martin was weather closures. Because Albemarle County kids– whose buses had to travel country roads– attended Burley, bad weather often closed the school, even if city residents could get there with no difficulty.

"I paid city taxes," says Martin. "After a while, it hit me. Why should I be ruled by the county?"

Martin was working as a domestic, and her husband, John, was a waiter at Farmington Country Club when they joined the lawsuit.

"I didn't think I was wrong," she says. And as for her children, she says, "I wasn't afraid anyone would hurt them." She pauses. "Maybe I was young and foolish."

When Lane and Venable were closed in 1958, her sons John and Donald did not return to the black schools, even though, Martin notes, "There was nothing wrong with our schools."

Like many whites, the Martin boys attended a makeshift school– "a waste of time," scoffs John Martin, now 59 and living in southern California.

Martin says his ninth-grade year was unproductive. And even though he says his IQ is 141, the lost year made it harder for him when he finally entered the 10th grade at Lane.

He remembers people asking him if he was afraid that first day, walking in front of the parents and the cameras. "That's when I laughed," he says.

"Johnny isn't afraid of the devil," declares his mother, although she imagines her sons must have been a little bit scared to be on the front line of integration.

Once in the prized white school, John Martin discovered just how good his Jefferson teachers had been: "The teachers were excellent– better than some at Lane," he says.

He recalls a Lane P.E. teacher who was "somewhat hostile," and an algebra teacher who seldom answered his questions. "I raised my hand, and it was like I was invisible," says Martin.

But he also remembers the people who treated him kindly, like his English teacher, June Webster, whom he calls "very respectful." Or his Spanish teacher, Hebe Redden, who taught him both Castilian and western hemisphere Spanish.

After the gauntlet of screaming adults he says he had to run to get into Lane that first day, he found that the students weren't that bad. One tried to rough him up, but "I pushed him into a chair, and he never did that again," says Martin.

He says a more typical response was classmates muttering under their breath– or simply not associating with him.

Martin also recalls the kindness of classmates like Montie Bickley, who asked him to be on his basketball team. Or cheerleader Pat Shelton, who gave him a ride one day when his bicycle had broken on his newspaper route.

Recruited by Hughes Aircraft after college and now a realtor, Martin didn't finish at Lane.

"Charlottesville decided to kick me out of town– they said I was part of a gang," he says, still incredulous 44 years later that a middle class kid would be dubbed a gang member and suspended after being accused– falsely, he says– of throwing rocks.

Martin graduated from Virginia Randolph High School in Richmond, and is not a Charlottesville booster. "I never liked it," he says from California. "I left there at 16. I come to visit, but would never live there."

His brother, Donald, did stick around, and now heads the local office of the Virginia Employment Commission.

Julia Martin used to hate history when she went to Esmont High School. Now, after being a part of the civil rights movement, she doesn't want this part of Charlottesville's history to be forgotten.

"The more you know, the better you are at preventing it from happening again," she says.

A community divided

Once the federal court had ruled that Charlottesville had to begin to desegregate, the General Assembly fought back with the 1956 massive resistance package that used the old Confederate rallying cry of "states' rights," and included tuition refunds to white parents to cover the cost of sending their children to segregated private schools.

"Basically what happened, the loonies and diehard racists in the General Assembly, led by Harry Byrd and [Richmond newspaper editor] James Kilpatrick, passed all the massive resistance legislation in 1956," explains UVA civil rights historian Paul Gaston.

Gaston, who came to Charlottesville in 1957, was a member of the Council on Human Relations, an integrated public body–pretty much Charlottesville's only one– that pushed the issue of desegregation.

At an August 23, 1956, meeting, agitators from New Jersey– the Seaboard White Citizens' Council– burned a cross outside the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church where the group met, according to Dallas Crow in his 1971 thesis, Desegregation of Charlottesville, Virginia, Public Schools, 1954-1969: A Case Study.

A week later, another cross was burned on the Copeley Hill lawn of Sarah Patton Boyle, who drew the wrath of segregationists when an article she'd written appeared in the Saturday Evening Post titled, "Southerners Will Like Integration."

Nancy Daniel was a white sixth grader in 1955 when she came out of her house on High Street to find a charred cross in the yard. Her father, Dr. Frank Daniel, had been working with Eugene Williams on the Human Relations Council and the NAACP, she says.

"What was most scary about it for me," she says, "was somebody was out to get my dad." The charred pieces went into the basement and remained for years until the family moved. "It was literally never talked about in my family," Daniel says.

Once it became clear that the governor would close Lane and Venable rather than integrate, parents at those schools scurried to find alternate places for their children to attend.

One local group, the Parents Committee for Emergency Schooling, favored keeping the schools open, even if it meant accepting integration.

Segregationists, aided by the well-funded Charlottesville Education Foundation, founded two whites-only schools: Robert E. Lee Elementary and Rock Hill Academy.

Hovey Dabney, although then involved with the Foundation, considers himself an integrator. He describes the time as "quite trying," with private schools "popping up like tulips." He served on the school board from 1959 to 1960, and says he and Buddy Kessler became known as "the fathers of busing."

Dabney remembers encountering resistance when he integrated Jefferson National Bank in the early 1960s. After he hired a black bookkeeper, a couple of women told him they'd have to quit because their husbands and boyfriends didn't like them working with a black man. "Within a month," says Dabney, "the husbands came in to meet him. They were crazy about him."

Looking back, he calls the reaction to desegregation as "way overblown."

Massive resistance forced moderates to choose between closed schools or integrated schools. Paul Gaston recalls a big meeting held at Memorial Gym with George Cason, president of the White Citizens Council.

"Cason," says Gaston, "took off his shoes, pulled up his pants legs, and walked across the floor like he was stepping in you-know-what. That was memorable."

"I felt integration was wrong," says Cason today. "We had a nice community, and I didn't want to see a whole lot of calamity coming." He credits the White Citizens Council for preventing the sort of violence that happened in places like Alabama and Mississippi.

Now, he calls massive resistance "a mistake" and admits a change of heart about integration. "It worked out a lot better than I thought," he says. "Blacks fit in real good."

He won't go so far as to label opponents of integration as "racists." Instead, he says, "They would have preferred things to stay the same."

A retired landscaper, Cason believes his involvement with the White Citizens Council adversely affected his business for years afterward.

Francis Fife was very eager to see who would show up at a White Citizens Council meeting, and nearly went to one. "But my better judgment said, 'No, your picture will be taken there with all these people against integration,'" he chuckles.

He credits Charlottesville Mayor Tom Michie, who later became a judge, for keeping things calm in Charlottesville.

"I was extremely proud of the mayor," says Francis Fife. "He went on the air and was asked if there would be trouble. He said, 'No, the people of Charlottesville will obey the law.'"

"He was the first elected official in the South to publicly state we were going to obey the law," says Michie's son, Tom Michie Jr. "His statement was, 'We've got an able police force, and we're going to enforce the law.'"

For school superintendent Tramontin, "One of the biggest problems with integration back then was that you never really knew where people stood. They'd say one thing and do another."

Even after massive resistance was declared unconstitutional, "Virginia dragged its feet" in integrating, he says.

When Charlottesville hired a black speech therapist, Tramontin discovered some parents wouldn't let their children attend speech class.

He's still amazed. "They were willing to let their children be handicapped," says Tramontin. "That's how strongly they felt."

When Tramontin served as director of instruction in 1960, one of the things he deplored was people pulling their children out of public schools and starting private schools.

"Now when I look back, it was a blessing," he says. "They pulled out the most rabid ones."

Helen "Sandy" Snook recalls that she found a deeply divided community when she moved here in 1961. And the school closures were a factor in her husband accepting a faculty position at UVA. "We would not have moved here until they opened the schools," she says.

Snook endeared herself forever to Eugene Williams. "During that hard segregated time," says Williams, "white people and black people did not openly socialize. The first social affair my wife and I attended with whites was at the Snooks'."

Massive resistance had already been declared unconstitutional when Jane Foster arrived in Charlottesville in July 1959, before the first black children entered white schools.

She joined the Council on Human Relations, and lobbied businesses to hire blacks. "They said employees would quit, and customers wouldn't like it," she remembers. Then Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Within three months, storeowners were hiring blacks, and "no one cared at all."

Foster wasn't quite prepared for how segregated Charlottesville was. "I remember saying to one of my black friends, you've got to go see Henry the Fifth, it's so wonderful." The film was playing at the now-closed University Theater on the Corner. "She looked and me and said, 'How can I go there?" The theater doesn't have a balcony.' I felt so white."

On February 28, 1961, a mixed-race group of 29 people forced the issue by attempting to attend the University Theater. According to "Mr. Jefferson's Rebels," a UVA student thesis by Christina Ross, 15 whites bought tickets to the movie. But when four blacks, including Virginius Thornton, UVA's first African-American grad student, attempted to purchase tickets, the theater refused to admit them because it had no segregated facilities.

Charlottesville's first protest against segregation followed, and a Daily Progress photo shows Thornton picketing the University Theater under a marquee advertising Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner in On the Beach.

"Charlottesville," Foster says, "was as segregated as the deep South."

Fists flying at Buddy's

Jane Foster discovered another fact about her adopted town: "Charlottesville didn't like bad publicity." And that's what it got when violence finally erupted at a 1963 Memorial Day sit-in at Buddy's Restaurant on Emmet Street.

In fact, that's also Paul Gaston's most lasting memory of that era. "I was never afraid of anything," says Gaston, "until I got beaten up [at Buddy's]."

Inspired by the demonstrations in Birmingham, the idea to integrate restaurants took shape at a picnic attended by the Human Relations Council and NAACP members. The group divided into two teams.

The first went to a restaurant across from U-Hall. The group of black and white adults, steeling themselves for a confrontation, went in and sat down, according to Gaston in his article, "'Sitting In' in the Sixties."

A waitress approached them and asked, "What will you have?"

Not expecting to be served, some in the group were embarrassed because they had no money, Gaston recounts.

Things did not go so smoothly with the second team, of which Gaston was a part. That group was ignored when it sat down in Buddy's, now the site of the Virginia Museum of Natural History. When they returned the next day, they were not allowed into the restaurant.

The protestors lined up outside. When two white men physically expressed their displeasure by slapping a black minister, Gaston went to a phone booth to call the police– and was punched in the face four times.

"Mine was the first blood that flowed in the streets of Virginia," he says.

"Boy, did we get publicity," Foster says of the event that inspired restaurants, motels, and theaters all over town to suddenly announce they were desegregated.

But not Buddy's. It remained open but segregated until July 2, 1964– the day the Civil Rights Act passed. And then it closed.

Daughter of desegregation

Scheryl Williams Glanton was in the second wave to integrate Charlottesville schools. She, too, was part of a lawsuit– in this case, to attend Johnson Elementary. In 1960, as a third grader, she left Jefferson to attend Johnson– with a police escort.

"My parents had prepared me that this was an important cause," she says. "I thought it was an honor. I wasn't scared because of the secure environment I had of church, family, and community."

Glanton considers herself a crossover between the black and white worlds of Charlottesville. "I went everywhere in Charlottesville, except movie theaters," she says. "My parents never allowed me to go there because we were not allowed to sit downstairs."

Glanton recalls that the first field trip planned for her Johnson Elementary class was to the still-segregated Paramount. "The teacher said she'd sit with me in the balcony, and I said I couldn't," recalls Glanton, now 51. "The whole class left."

Johnson's principal, Betty Davis Via, wrote the theater and said that if all her students couldn't watch the movie together, they wouldn't go at all, recounts Glanton, adding, "Not long after that, we all went to the movies."

While Glanton struggles to remember the name of the principal who was so kind to her, she has no trouble remembering the name of the little girl who called her "nigger."

"You never forget that," she says. "It was extremely hurtful. That had never happened before. Mrs. Via handled it beautifully. She had an assembly on kindness, which was kind of progressive at that time."

At Johnson, Glanton was an honor roll student and active in extracurricular activities, including cheerleading. In high school, however, she was rejected as a cheerleader.

"That was unusual if you had a history of being a cheerleader in elementary school," she says. Her mother, who taught at Lane, pointed out that her daughter was the only former cheerleader not re-selected. The school said it had made a mistake, and Glanton made the squad.

She was the first black homecoming queen at Charlottesville High. And, she notes, "I was the first one they didn't put on the cover of the paper."

Glanton, who went on to college at Swarthmore, sees nothing unusual in her activist childhood. "My parents wanted us to be happy-go-lucky, but at the same time, do what you need to do to change the world," she says.

For example, on a typical outing, pig-tailed Glanton would go to Woolworth's with her father and sit for hours without being served. "We did them all the time," she says. "I remember Woolworth's because they had those fountain shakes, and I wanted one."

Another Williams' family rule: "We weren't allowed to buy from a place [like Woolworth's] unless we could eat there," says Glanton.

But she believes her family's involvement in civil rights had a negative effect on her mother's career as a teacher. And there were other slights.

"My mother had house accounts at the main stores in Charlottesville where she could go in and sign the bill," says Glanton. "After Dad got active in civil rights, she went into a store and found that the account was closed."

As much as she pushed to break barriers, Glanton realizes she was also sheltered from some of the horrors of the time.

"It was harder on black kids," says Jane Foster. "Nobody knew. They weren't complaining, and their parents were so proud of them. You find this out later."

Foster mentions Olivia Ferguson, a plaintiff in the Allen case who sat in a classroom by herself her senior year. "That was a real sacrifice," says Foster. "She was missing out on the fun at Burley. And they didn't use these wonderful black athletes on the basketball and football teams."

In fact, John Martin mentions his classmate Garwin DeBerry, who went back to Burley so he could play football and is now head football coach at Charlottesville High.

In the conference room of the Williams family real estate firm, Dogwood Housing, where Glanton comes down from Philadelphia to work once a month, she seems unfazed by her role in breaking down barriers. "Of course there were sacrifices," she says, "but it didn't impact my joie de vivre as a person."

At her father's suggestion, she shows a visitor a framed copy of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Tribune that heralds a visit by Thurgood Marshall (whom Williams had invited to town), a desegregation ruling by Judge John Paul, and a visit from some Liberian students.

"This was the paper that kept us informed," she says. In fact, the thing that bothered Glanton the most about her education in white schools was not learning the full spectrum of African American news and history.

"Black papers," says Agnes Cross-White, whose father-in-law founded the Tribune, "were the only way blacks received news about the civil rights movement. The old Progress was very demeaning about the civil rights movement."

50 years later

For Eugene Williams, the struggle goes on. "He started a course and stayed on it," says his daughter. "He doesn't think the struggle is over, and neither do I."

He says he's more interested in current events than "repeating history over and over again," and that massive resistance goes on today.

He points to the now-dilapidated Jefferson School and says it has more architectural detail than any school in town. And he's scornful of talk about turning the old "colored only" school to condominiums that blacks couldn't afford to live in. "That's massive resistance," says Williams.

Williams is particularly contemptuous of whites who tell blacks, "Look how far you've come."

"Look how far you have to go," Williams often retorts.

He claims that local blacks graduating from UVA don't stick around to practice law or medicine or engineering.

"We can go all out and bring in black young men to run up and down a field," he says, "or black young ladies to run up and down a court.

"Massive resistance hasn't stopped," he says, again urging a reporter to photograph the Jefferson School.

On the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Julia Martin summarizes the differences between then and now:

"You can live more or less like a human being. You're free to go where you want. You can get an education. You can get a job if you want. You don't have to work cleaning somebody's house– and that's fine if that's what you want to do. But not because you're black and that's all you can do."

Photographers capture John and Donald Martin on their first day at Lane High School.

Eugene Williams recruited families to apply to white schools in 1955, setting the stage for a lawsuit against the Charlottesville School Board.

Scheryl Williams Glanton, Charlottesville High's first African American homecoming queen, remembers sitting in at Woolworth's with her father, Eugene Williams.

When the court ordered Charlottesville to integrate schools in 1958, Francis Fife was tempted to attend a meeting of the newly formed White Citizens Council just to see who showed up– but was afraid of being photographed and mistaken for a segregationist.

As a city taxpayer, it didn't make sense to Julia Martin that her children had to walk past Lane High School to go to Burley High School. She joined the lawsuit against the city school board.

Helen Snook, standing in front of Venable, the other school closed to avoid desegregation in 1958, invited Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Williams to her house– defying Charlottesville's segregated social system.

UVA history prof and civil rights activist Paul Gaston came to Charlottesville in 1957. He joined the local NAACP and got beat up at a protest at Buddy's Restaurant in 1963.

George Tramontin became superintendent of Charlottesville schools in 1963. His plan to integrate schools by having all 6th graders go to Jefferson earned him "a one-way ticket out of here," says Eugene Williams.

Some African Americans say they're not taught as well today as they were at black schools like Jefferson Elementary, which continues to deteriorate as the city tries to figure out what to do with this symbol from its segregated past.

When whites lauded how good black schools were in the '50s, Eugene Williams wondered why they didn't send their children to those schools.

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